Áron Szilágyi with his two Olympic Gold medals

When we think of the highest possible outcome for our fencers, we of course think of the possibility of them becoming Olympic champions. There is no greater stage and no higher podium than the Individual Gold at the Olympics. 
Áron Szilágyi has accomplished the feat of making it to the top of the individual Olympic podium not once, but twice in a row in men’s saber.

It’s an accomplishment that is almost impossible for us to imagine, and then here is he, a real person who is extraordinary and real all at once. He competed in Beijing in 2008, only to finish fifteenth. In 2012 in London, he found his footing and won his first individual gold medal. In 2016 in Rio, he received a great honor as the flagbearer for Hungary, and then went on to win Individual Gold again. He is only the fifth fencer in the over one hundred year history of the Olympics to win back-to-back Gold medals. He was only twenty-six years old at the time.

There are too many high results to list here in his career. He has won Gold at almost every competition you can imagine, all over the world. At this point, he brings to them an ease and a clarity that is tremendous to hear. 

When you read Szilágyi’s words, you’re going to find that he is an approachable and grounded champion. He gets out of bed and puts his fencing knickers on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. What is perhaps different is the cultivation and determination that he brings to his passion. Fencing is a complex and elegant sport, and it is striking to hear his insight into the artistry of it. Physicality meets intellect.

Whatever the future holds for the Tokyo 2020, and hopefully there is a Tokyo 2020, we hope to see Áron Szilágyi continue to show the true champion’s mentality that we have come to appreciate. 

Interview with Áron Szilágyi

Igor – Thank you for agreeing to this interview Áron. How are you doing this afternoon?

Áron Szilágyi – I just got home from training.

IG – So you’re back to normal training?

AS – I’m back to training. Not normal training, but we have regular activities every afternoon and it’s kind of fencing-like activities. We are going back to normal slowly.

IG – You don’t bout yet? Or you do?

AS – We do some exercises with saber and with the opponent, but it’s not freestyle fencing.

IG – 2019-2020 is the most important season in a fencer’s life. You don’t have a chance to make mistakes because it’s Olympic qualification. How did you take the postponement of the Olympic Games?

AS – As you said, it was the Olympic year and it was more important than the previous ones. But let me mention that the qualification started like a half a year before the previous season. We had the European Championship and the World Championship. We had kind of stabilized our position with the world team in the ranking to make the qualification, which we did with the last two World Cups.

I had the time and the energy to focus on my individual performance at the competitions. I was very eager to come back for the 2019-2020 season and compete in the best shape individually. Which I did. Two gold medals came and I was very happy with them. I was very satisfied. 

Then the news came out that the Olympics got postponed which got me devastated. I was in a bit of a shock. I don’t say it was unexpected, but for me it was unbelievable that such a great event like the Olympic Games can be postponed like from one day to another. It was very hard for me not only because I was in great shape, but because I had tried to focus on every aspect of my life in order to be successful at the Olympic Games. That was the only goal that I had for 2020 and it was gone. I couldn’t have even gone to the club to have training or go out let alone to meet my friends, so it was a hard time.

But it was a hard time for everyone. I calmed myself with the thought that it was not only hard for sportsmen or for sportsmen who prepared for the Olympics, but for the everyday people just as much. People are losing their lives and losing their health, losing their jobs. I wasn’t the only one having problems. 

After a couple of weeks, I kind of accepted the fact that the Olympic Games got postponed. I was able to be happy that it wasn’t canceled. It’s planned now that the Olympics will be taking place in Tokyo next year, so we have a little hope which we can grab and go on. 

Owning the competition

Áron Szilágyi is 5th fencer ever to win Gold medal in two consecutive Olympic Games

IG – I am always curious about the mental aspects. After London, your name became central in fencing. That expectation is very high. It requires a very high level of ignorance on your part to shake it off right? So you went to Rio being the reigning Olympic champion. How did this fact that you needed to defend your title play, if any?

AS – First I didn’t focus on the expectations coming from the outside because I had the greatest expectations for myself. Which is quite enough. I focused on the inside and I tried to articulate why I wanted to win again. It’s worked very well. Secondly, I had the confidence coming from the fact that I already did it once. I don’t say that I copied the preparation that I did for London, but there were very similar elements. For example, we did the same training camps for two weeks, we trained with the German National Team. Then the last week I was at home sleeping in my own bed, which was comfortable. In Rio I felt I owned this competition. It was a strange feeling. My confidence was on the highest level but I worked very very hard because I had that motivation coming from inside. This was a good mix. 

IG – Interesting. You said that you owned the competition. Did you ever feel like this again, that you owned the competition?

AS – Several competitions, yes. For instance, we had the Athens World Cup in Greece. I won that competition three times. It was one of my favorite competitions. Then the women’s saber replaced us and they have that competition these last couple of years. I remember when I went there the second and the third time, I felt like I cannot lose because I usually win here. Sometimes I have this. I usually have it in Padua. We have a World Cup there every year in Italy. Great competitions, many spectators that know fencing. I love that competition and I usually get good results there. I’ve won it twice, but received medals like six times I think. I have my competitions. Everybody has their own kind of favorite competitions.

How to fight superstitions

Áron Szilágyi is Hungarian team flag bearer at the Olympic Games in Rio 2016
Áron Szilágyi is Hungarian’s team flag bearer at the Olympic Games in Rio 2016

IG – Another thing is that in Rio you were flag bearer for Hungary. I think usually being a flag bearer in the same Olympic Games doesn’t bring good results for the bearer. Did it cross your mind?

AS – Yes. It’s especially true in Hungary. We had this superstition for fifty or sixty years, that at every Olympic Games the flag bearer will not receive the Gold medal. It was true for fifty or sixty years. When the Hungarian Olympic Committee asked me if I would like to be the flag bearer, I asked a couple of days to think about it. I talked to my coach. Of course I talked to my psychologist and my wife. We tried to figure out which is the better way to go. We thought that being the flag bearer can be a possibility to enhance my confidence and boost my energy. So I accepted and did it and I was there at the Opening Ceremony bearing the flag with the team. That was taped, and my psychologist sent it to me. I watched it every day until the competition day. And it really worked. It gave me great additional energy. I watched this and I watched my last bout in London. It was a confidence boost. 

IG – Did you think anything special when you went with the flag? 

AS – I tried to feel and I felt very happy and proud. I tried to enjoy the moment, which I did. It was fantastic with so many fans. It was such a great atmosphere in Brazil in the arena. I felt like I was on the top of the world.

Aron Szilagyi: “I don’t set any dates”

Áron Szilágyi © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

IG – You are one of the most experienced fencers in the world. What now is the next goal for you?

AS – I have different goals every year. I am very motivated to go to Tokyo to fight for my third Gold medal individually and to fight with my team to make a good result. The last time I was able to do that was in 2008 in Beijing. While we were the World Champions of 2007 and we had great expectations as a team, we got seventh place. Losing only one touch forty-five forty-four against the USA. Keith Smart was unbeatable that day. He beat Stanislav Pozdnyakov with Russians and the USA got Silver. 

But back to the question – I have different goals. I would like to see how far I can get with my sports career. I don’t make dates. I don’t assign any age until which I would like to continue. I  enjoy it. I have the energy now. I will do the next season and then the next season and then if I have the energy, the next season. 

IG – How does a more veteran fencer in saber create a situation and bring the game to a different level?

AS – I think that nowadays the trend is changing because there are a lot of training techniques which can make your career longer because you will not get injured or not that often. We will be able to compete at the age of thirty-five to forty. Nowadays I focus not only to train a lot but to train right. I have great coaches. Fencing coach András Decsi and my physical coach who are taking good care of me. 

How Aron Szilagyi prepares for competitions

IG – When you prepare for very important competitions like the World Championships or the Olympic Games, what makes it different?

AS – Usually, when it’s competition season we stay in Budapest. I live at home. So we are not going to training camps in the countryside. We usually live our normal lives. We have half of our trainings with the National Team. They are all fencing trainings, usually in the morning at the fencing facility of the Hungarian Fencing Federation. We usually fence there as much as we can, as many bouts as we can. We work with our coaches in the fencing clubs. A lot of footwork. Some conventional exercises. Then there are different dedicated physical trainings with the coach because I don’t like when a fencing coach, epee saber or foil coach, tries to do physical training. I think it’s an entirely different job. It’s good if a professional physical trainer does it.

I have around ten or eleven trainings a week. Usually if it’s a competition week, then necessarily less than that. Then the most important competition of the year comes, that would be the World Championships or the Olympics, we usually take a four or five week preparation during which we go to training camps so we can forget everyday problems of being at home.Then we focus only on the preparation for everything like nutrition, getting enough sleep, our physio is there. Then it’s more professional.

We don’t usually take very long trainings because you get too tired and then you are not able to regenerate for the next session. Two hours is enough. Usually I take three lessons a week with my coach. They are thirty-thirty five minutes. We talk more. He’s the head coach of the Hungarian saber team. We talk after almost every bout about my experiences  there and what exercise I should do the next time. It’s more about bouts for us.

IG – How important is the role of the coach? We tend to think that an athlete at your level knows everything. 

AS – I’m sure that I need different things from my coach than I needed ten years ago. Now I’m a ready formed fencer. Of course he can change my fencing a little bit. But I already have my fencing style. My technique. My tactical repertoire. What I need from my coach now is to reflect on my fencing and to tell me what mistakes I do or what little things we can change. Tactically what new kinds of elements we should add to my fencing. I don’t need him to teach me fencing or how I should make a parry and a riposte. We are beyond that. It’s another level of thinking together. 

IG – More like a partner than a coach.

AS – I would like to think of my coach as a partner. 

IG – Talking about tactics. You know everybody on the circuit. How much do you prepare in advance? How much do you study them? 

AS – We do video analysis quite often. More right before an important competition like World Championships or Olympics. My opinion is that the best way to analyze your opponent is to fence against him. That’s why I was happy that at the last two competitions in Warsaw and Luxembourg I won. Not only because I received the Gold medal, but because I had the opportunity to fence with the best fencers in the semi finals and finals. I have the experience of how to fence against them. What kind of rhythm they fence in, what actions they use. How they use it. What kind of traps they build in their fencing, which you cannot see in a video for sure. When you experience it with yourself fencing with them, it’s a much better way to analyze them. 

Unpacking different styles

Áron Szilágyi and Daryl Homer shaking hands after Rio 2016 final bout
Áron Szilágyi and Daryl Homer after the final match in Rio 2016

IG – How do you see styles of different countries? 

AS – Well, the fencers I like to fence the most are the Italians. They are always very technical fencers. They are like artists. They focus on the smallest movements of the blade and it is great to watch them have a lesson with their coaches. It’s very nice to be honest. I think we Hungarians are similar to Italians. We are bit more warriors, but still our coaches focus on the technical part of fencing very much. The Russians I think are very strong mentally. I always feel like I cannot get them out of their comfort zone. They are very stable and focused. They do what they need to do. They are not really technical. They are not the most tactically advanced fencers, but they are just strong. 

Now there’s the Koreans, they’re one of the best teams. They just won three World Championships for their team in a row. What’s interesting in their fencing is that their body is built in a much different way. They are just faster and more agile and mobile and it’s very hard to fence against them. Ten years ago we could not have said that they are tactically that advanced but now they are. They’ve learned it and now they just teach us how to handle saber. 

I think fencers coming from countries with not great fencing histories like Iran or Georgia for example in saber now. They don’t have the history and they don’t have the old coaches to tell them what to do. They are free to do what’s elementarily necessary to give a touch and that’s what I feel with the Iranian and the Georgian fencers do. Their fencing comes from the instincts, not from the learned technical and tactical abilities. 

Now finally the American fencers, that’s a mix. If I fence with an American fencer, I don’t know what to expect. Which is good for American fencing. 

How to fight your demons

IG – You have an unbeatable track record in Olympic Games and I hope you will become the first fencer ever to win it three times in a row. They say the Olympics is the most difficult competition not from a technical perspective but from a mental perspective. From technical perspective, you don’t have all the strongest fencers. It’s much less. Mentally it’s probably the most difficult. But from you personally, it looks like World’s is the most difficult competition. 

AS – That’s true yes. The World Championships didn’t become one of my favorites. It was only one time I received a Bronze Medal in Budapest 2013. I was five more times, so altogether six times in the best eight. Which we can call good results, but to be honest you are not satisfied if you don’t receive a medal. So I’m not entirely satisfied with my performance at the World Championships. I tried to be better and hopefully I will have more opportunities to receive more medals. For the next two years I don’t have to focus on the World Championships.

IG – That’s one of the disadvantages of postponing the Olympic Games is that they canceled the World Championships 2021.

AS – Yes, we didn’t lose the Olympics but we lost the World Championships. We actually had the discussion, I’m on the FIE athletic commission, and we had the discussion whether we would like to organize the World Championships next year. We didn’t see any reason to have the World Championships and the Olympics in the same year. 

IG – It doesn’t, because both of them are so big competitions that you need to have a long period to prepare. Then to perform there, then to discharge, then to perform again. There is a huge limitation of how many people can go.

AS – And to recover. Yes.

IG – I’m going to be very blunt. Let’s say that you failed in your goal to reach the Gold medal, and a lot of fencers experience these things. From a young age even in local competitions, Cadet, Junior, even Youth. Then they go to the National Championship and they say “Oh, this is a very scary competition for me and I’ve never won.” Now being an extremely experienced athlete, what can you change? How can you break the curse?

AS – I have worked with two psychologists from 2011, so nine years now. What we do after a competition which doesn’t go the way I want and becomes a failure in my mind, is that we try to process this disappointment. If I just say that it doesn’t matter, that I will do good the next time, that I will succeed the next time, it doesn’t work like that. You sow this disappointment in yourself, and you have to get rid of it. You have to put it somewhere. We take a lot of time to process these kinds of things. It always goes a little bit differently. Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s harder. I had competitions like the Moscow Grand Prix. Somehow I never liked that competition. We usually went there in February. It was very cold. It was a nice venue and a nice competition, but somehow I don’t know, I did some bad results there the first couple of years and it didn’t become my favorite competition. 

Three or four years later we said with my psychologist, ok it’s not my favorite competition. We can say that there’s a good chance that I won’t get a good result. But I go either way and let’s see . Then I went home with a Bronze medal. After that I received two more medals the last three years. You can break it, and a bad competition can become one of your favorite ones. It didn’t happen with the World Championships yet, well not individually. With the team it goes very well the last couple of years. The last four World Championships we were medalists. 

Democratization of fencing

Áron Szilágyi at the podium with Korean, American and Russian - true representation of how fencing became to be a global sport

IG – You mentioned that the Koreans emerged in the last ten years out of nowhere. They’re very fast, agile. They can change extremely well. They switch from attack to defense and attack to defense. It’s amazing to watch. Interestingly, in the last century there were three major superpowers in saber – Hungary, Italy and Russia in saber. What changed in the world in your opinion in the last twenty years? Why can’t those countries keep this dominance anymore?

AS – Well I think part of the reasons for these kinds of changes is that coaches started to migrate to different countries. Korea is not the best example because they always have Korean coaches and they just went to every competition with the camera. They video recorded everything and then they just learned it somehow. But in other countries, let’s say the USA for example, Russian, Italian, Hungarian, Polish coaches went there and they just taught the young fencers the same thing they’ve been taught at home. That’s one thing. 

The other thing is that in many countries fencing became more and more popular because people started to realize that it’s a very interesting and elegant sport. I’m very happy to see that. In Hungary there are more and more fencers, but I go to a lot of places around the globe and I see that the fencing is getting more and more popular and there are new clubs everywhere. National teams are getting stronger everywhere. Every World Championships we have newcomers and it’s a very good period. It’s very nice to see that fencing is growing. 

IG – You have said that we need to really work on making fencing more popular around the world. Obviously we cannot match it to mainstream sports like football or basketball, it’s impossible. What is missing in order to make it more popular? 

AS – What I see is that we need every country to have fencing facilities and fencing clubs and national teams. I think it’s an excellent way to spread around the globe. Secondly, and I think it’s even more important, that we try to hint at the people that fencing is an interesting sport. Sometimes I meet with a person who is not coming from the fencing world and just tells me that he doesn’t understand our sport and so he doesn’t watch it. Last year for the World Championships in Budapest it was a full house of five thousand people in one of the arenas in Budapest. Most of the people didn’t have a clue what fencing is but were able to enjoy it because it’s full of emotions and it’s interesting and it’s thrilling, it’s exciting. That’s what we have to tell people. That our sport is exciting.

Fencing for the referee

IG – Saber is one of the most beautiful because the motions are big. You are swinging swords. It’s the closest to movies of all three. But it’s the most difficult to understand who scored. It happens in a split second, always. While it’s so beautiful from the understanding of motion, it’s very very complicated. Oftentimes for people that don’t understand fencing it looks like a coin flip on the part of the referee.

AS – Yes, that’s true. I cannot argue with that. Many times there’s a touch and I argue with my own coach because we don’t agree on which fencer received that point and what just happened. Of course you have to try to make it more understandable and clear for the fencers and for the spectators. It won’t be perfectly objective. They try to do it objectively for one hundred years now and nobody succeeded yet. Usually these conversations of saber fencing become interesting. For me. Maybe not for everyone. This is part saber fencing.

It’s up to the referee to interpret and to understand the rule and to apply it to the bout. What is more important to me as a fencer is that the referee starts to referee a match and referees it the same way every time throughout the match. That gives me comfort and stability so I know if I do that, which I already received the point with, if I do it the next time I’ll receive the point as well. It’s up to the referee to do it. 

IG – Your job is to adapt the referee’s style and interpretation and fence for him or for her. 

AS – Yes, that’s our job. It’s not only to fence well, it’s to fence for the referee. Of course there are a finite number of good referees on the circuit and so I know them quite well and I know who prefers what kind of actions. I try to adapt my fencing accordingly. 

IG – Do you have anyone that you do not like to referee your bouts?

AS – Even if I would, I wouldn’t answer that question. (laughing).

IG – (laughing) Yes, I expected this answer. But I could not resist asking it. 

If you would think about your fencing and have a time machine, what would you change?

AS – Good question. I’d never thought of it. I think I would be too afraid to change anything. I became the fencer I am because of the things that I did and the decisions that I made. I had very good coaches, I wouldn’t change that. I have always fenced in my club since I was nine years old. I wouldn’t change that. I think I would go back to fourteen or fifteen year old me and tell myself to train more. I was a teenager, I tended to be lazy a little bit. I wouldn’t change much.

IG – When did you realize that you wanted to make fencing your profession?

AS – I think I decided that when I was seventeen years old. Rapidly I became Junior European Champion and Cadet European Champion. I got some results at the World Championships and World Cups and then I became a member of the Senior Team and we won the World Championships in 2007. I was only seventeen at that time. Then I knew, it’s already my profession and I wanted it to be. 

IG – Thanks a lot. It’s a very fascinating discussion. I hope you enjoyed it as well.

AS – I did, very much.

IG – I do believe that a lot of things like champions like yourself have to say to people, especially young people. They can talk to their parents about their problems or their expectations. I hope that more and more kids will start doing fencing and will look up to you. I hope that more kids will look up to you and say that if he is a boy from Hungary who can reach the Olympics, why can’t I?

AS – Hopefully. 

IG – One thing you must promise me – that you will never retire from fencing until you break your World Championship curse and get a Gold medal.

AS – Haha, I will try my best to that, yes.

IG – Thanks a lot. 

This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Áron has a great deal of insight to offer for fencers of all disciplines. It is published with his approval on this blog. 

We at AFM are so grateful to Áron Szilágyi for his openness and his time! The insight into the reality of fencing at this level is a boost for every fencer, and Áron is generous to have given it to our readers. Thank you Áron!